30 years ago, a young fan named Ben Edlund created a big blue parody of superheroes called The Tick for his local comic shop’s newsletter.
Needless to say, the character caught on.
Decades later, the Tick has proven to be as enduring as the many comic tropes he parodied, going from his own series (still being published by New England Comics from new creators), to a Saturday morning cartoon on Fox to a short-lived live-action version on that network with noted tall, deep-voiced comic actor Patrick Warburton.
And now, the Tick is about to be reborn…again.
This Friday, Amazon will premiere the pilot for an all-new The Tick live-action television series, once again penned by Edlund and starring noted actor Peter Serafinowicz (Guardians of the Galaxy, Star Wars, Spaced) as the blue guy, with Vinyl’s Griffin Newman as his moth-outfitted sidekick Arthur and Rorschach himself, Jackie Earle Haley, as the villainous the Terror, along with Warburton returning behind-the-scenes as a producer.
This new take on The Tick is set in a world where superheroes are a very, very big part of the daily culture, and Arthur is an ordinary Joe who stumbles upon evidence that a long-gone evil is about to reemerge. Only the Tick can help him…or possibly get him killed. And where this story goes will depend directly on fans watching and rating this pilot to determine if the new series continues.
Since the last live-action version of The Tick, Edlund’s maintained a steady and prolific career as a writer, director, and producer in genre television, including runs on Firefly, Angel, Supernatural, and most recently the first season of Gotham and the second season of Powers. Newsarama called him up to talk about the origins of this new version of The Tick series, why the concept has proven so long-lasting, the secret to superhero comedy, and much more.
Newsarama: So Ben, how did the current version of The Tick TV series come about - how long had there been discussions, or was it something that kind of emerged spontaneously?
Ben Edlund: It took a lot of deliberate action, but initially, there was kind of a ripple of discussion between Sony, Barry Josephson, and Patrick Warburton, and I got involved. There was, ultimately, a kind of shared fondness for where The Tick live-action series had gotten to, and where we wanted to get with it, and there was a lot of enthusiasm associated with the idea that this could move forward.
So that was about three years ago, and we did a set of pitches about what the show could be. It took some time to work out, but when we got to sit down with Amazon, it turned out it was what they wanted.
They’ve been doing some great work with genre material like The Man in the High Castle, and this is their way of getting into the superhero game. [laughs] And they’re really putting their money and their love and their enthusiasm behind it.
So it was a couple of years, passing the story back and forth and doing multiple drafts, and for me, really trying to conceive this new version that would achieve kind of a lasting footing. I think the previous live-action version was of a very good quality – Patrick was amazing, all the actors were just terrific. But it was something that didn’t yet have an audience like the audience of today, which is so sophisticated in the endless details of superhero saturation.
Nrama: That gets into some of the things I wanted to ask about the update - with the Tick, you have a character who’s very satirical of these universal, human behaviors, like being oblivious and aggrandizing, qualities that can apply to any decade.
But you’ve got several iterations of the character at this point = the initial comic is very mocking of that ’80s dark-and-gritty angst, the ‘90s cartoon is a little more upbeat, the first live-action show in the early 2000s is more about contrasting the superhero elements with these mundane, everyday problems. And now there’s this version, which, as you said, it’s talking about a world where people know all manner of superheroes, origins, continuities, and things.
So, how do you feel this version of The Tick is distinct from the previous iterations, and what is the kind of immutable essence of the character that remains, to get all pretentious about it?
Edlund: Good question. I think The Tick has done best in every version by taking the kind of outlandish, mythological flourishes of the genre, and finding ways to ground them. The heroes are…the way I kind of look at it is, “The universe does not support their heroism.”
You could shift this, and tell this story about this incredible blue bug-man who is so heroic, but really, the eye of the universe that we’re in here is looking at the human comedy in it. It doesn’t build up the heroic self-images, it shows them stumbling, and trying to find the camera for that moment of the close-up when they need it. And that leads to a kind of comedy of mundane-ness, and two levels to access this story.
Humor has always been a powerful tool to allow adults to access genre. For example, Xena – which is coming back, too! – that’s an early kind of hybrid of that adventure production aesthetic with a contemporariness in its dialogue, a self-awareness, a sense that people are just people, and they can have a less-formalized relationship to the viewer and their own frailties.
That’s kind of the genre that The Tick is a part of, and has remained what I call an “unchanged throughline” throughout all the different iterations.
Now, what’s changed is - well, many things have changed.
Live-action for superhero comics is, I think, one of the weirdest combinations and strangest things to present. To show what’s funny about superheroes - that’s kind of fish in a barrel.
Nrama: It’s tricky to pull off. I was watching the Adam West Batman show recently, and it works as both straight superhero stories for younger viewers and a campy comedy, but you see other iterations – some of the knock-offs they did at the time, for example, like Captain Nice, which had William Daniels and Buck Henry writing, but once they get past the set-up, there’s nowhere to take the character beyond the joke of the average guy in a silly-looking costume breaking stuff in these slapstick comedy scenes|
Edlund: Exactly. One of the first things that happens in superhero comedy is that dramatic stakes are, almost instinctively, thrown out the windows. But when you do that, you’re throwing out the true essence of what makes a superhero story matter. If you can’t care about what the characters care about, and if they’re not involved in trying to get something substantive done heroically, then there is nothing to hang on to week-to-week, nothing to build on to in terms of story.
That was, frankly, the drawback of the previous live-action version of The Tick. It had all these elements in place that were very beautiful in many ways, but - and I’ve said this before - it was arranged around the concept of everything being lighter than air as far as humor goes.
Every character, every aspiration, every element of the world was an attempt to find humor in each one. And what that did was it released any tension. And actually, a higher level of humor comes from tension and a bit of nervousness, because you care about what’s going on.
You can do nine episodes worth of superhero jokes and not much else in terms of building a real story between the characters. What we built was a relationship that got proved in every episode, and it was fun to play with, but it did not grow, and the stories of the heroes’ need to fight evil or find the other were kind of inclined - it gained nothing over time. And I think that’s true with things like Captain Nice.
It’s funny with that show, though, because Buck Henry also did Get Smart, and that’s kind of a different version of that spoof that managed to pull something off. But that’s spoofing spy stuff, which is a bit lower to the ground and less absurd - you don’t have to support all this rubber, all these costumes. [laughs]
Here - we’ve got the weirdest-looking things on camera! And we have to take them seriously.
One of the things we’re doing with this that’s different, that we’ve never really applied it to this story, and I think it’s the crucial element, is that you really care whether or not Arthur succeeds as a hero, whether or not the Tick will help him or get him killed.
Nrama: From what I’ve read, it seems like the arc of this one is kind of a classic “hero’s journey” for Arthur.
Edlund: Exactly. And that’s the sort of thing the Tick tends to reference directly in the course of the pilot, because he can’t help but talk meta. Half the time, he doesn’t even know whether he’s narrating or talking. The show gets confused about whether he’s talking to himself in his head or just talking off into space, because in his head, he’s doing both.
Nrama: Diegetic and non-diegetic all melted together!
Edlund: Exactly! It’s like a swirl of both flavors, like matter and anti-matter in a Ben and Jerry’s ice-cream tub. Yum!
So one of the differences is that the continuity really matters, the hero’s quest really matters, what Arthur needs really matters. And then - there’s blood! All kinds of potential for death and/or limb loss!
Nrama: Goodness! That hasn’t been an issue for the Tick in a while, since the days of the Man-Eating Cow and the Chainsaw Vigilante.
Edlund: Yes! And really, the comic book didn’t…well, there was some real-world impact on Oedipus from all the ninja shenanigans. But there were some dealings with issues that did not make it into the cartoon.
Though there was some stuff in the cartoon that went deeper - you see Dinosaur Neil meet Arthur’s sister Dot, and this relationship begins, and they have an engagement party and a wedding…
Nrama: Right, and Arthur has his own romance, and the Tick forms his bond with Speak, the not-exactly-talking not-exactly-a-dog…
Edlund: Exactly. The relationship builds, and by the third season they’ve become kind of this domestic pair with an animal between them, and they become really the key defenders of the City – from nobodies to kind of relied-upon.
For a Saturday morning cartoon, there was actually a bit of development, and we would have probably tried to do more with the live-action version if we’d moved forward, the first nine were kind of scattered postcards from this universe.
But that’s the kind of stuff we wanted to do from the beginning here, and not be this kind of retrofitted engineering as it went on. And I think Amazon, and all of us, were really intent on finding a way to land this thing where you’re permitted to care, you’re permitted to want to know how it turns out.
And I’m intent on having the most fun I can with the absurdities of this world that, hopefully after the pilot process, we’ll be allowed to further investigate.
Ultimately - I think there might be one or two comedies coming out in the next cycle of shows and films, but right now, every genre of superhero that’s on TV and cinema can’t look stupid. [Laughs]
Nrama: You can’t just do “spandex looks silly” jokes.
Edlund: Yeah, and I wanted everything in the show to look kind of cool, like, “Wow, I’m surprised at how cool this look!” But a lot of superhero shows - the DC shows play more with powers and closer to the raw comic-book feel of aliens and time-travel and all that comic-book stuff. So I think it can be done well.
But it’s what we as consumers have been experiencing since 1938, when Superman came along and since then, it’s been this one long carpet-bomb sort of fog. As a graph, the sheer number of superhero stories and elements is just crazy to look at.
Nrama: There was a mock poster for the next Avengers sequel going around, and it had all the heroes and villains from the different films and TV shows, and there were something like 50 actors up there. It’s strange, the films and TV are portrayed as these streamlined versions of the characters, but after a while, they get just as complicated as the comic books, same with all the reboots! It’s like the theory of entropy, all systems devolve into chaos, and if you try to organize them, they just get even more chaotic.
Edlund: [laughs] For sure! Especially when they attempt to - and I think this is laudable - do these kind of experimental multi-narrative structures, with multiple viewpoints that all feed into the larger consensus narrative over different titles.
But there’s something inescapably different about it - where you don’t need a human being to go from the set of one show to another show, you have the essence of one character passing from one comic book’s writer and artist to another. And it can be done in a parallel-processing manner that allows for the tracking of that sort of universe.
So there can be a lot of struggles, et cetera. But the fact that they’re doing this and they’re succeeding, they’re getting these huge audiences - the appetite is staggering for this stuff. It’s exactly the time to be playing with the themes and fooling around with what makes them what they are.
For me, working on Supernatural, there was a lot of that. After a certain period, we really invested in a kind of Möbius strip of meta-examination of the genre Supernatural was, and it was really cool and fun and have that awareness in the show.
I think there’s an even more open, fertile field for that in superheroes, because there’s nothing more viral in the public consciousness, I don’t think. What commands as much territory as this right now? People used to worry, “There’s a lot of vampire stuff around!” “Zombies have taken over a little!” What has remained as enduring as this, as fixed as this?
In Friday's part two of this interview, Edlund talks controversies (the Tick’s new mask!), what he’s learned from his other experiences in television, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and more.